Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Social Safety Net

Volunteers help a man balance a basket of food during the annual food distribution at the Poh Teck Tung shrine in Bangkok's Chinatown. 

Many Chinese shrines and temples in Bangkok hosted their annual community food distribution events this month during Hungry Ghost month. Two of the largest shrines in Chinatown, Poh Teck Tung and Wat Mangkon Kamalawat had events just a few blocks from each other. 

Although Thailand is prosperous compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, it is still an emerging economy and the government has limited resources for the social safety nets. Religious foundations and temples step in to fill many of the roles that government agencies have in western countries. 
People wait in line at the Poh Teck Tung food distribution. Traditional Siamese conical hats are distributed and used as baskets.  

Poh Teck Tung is one of the largest of the many foundations that help the indigent in Thailand. They operate a first responder service of medics and ambulances, they found schools, they help people cover funeral expenses if a loved one dies and they operate hospitals. They first became famous as Bangkok's "body snatchers" because they used to race to accident scenes to transport the dead to morgues. (They still do it, but it's become a much smaller part of what they do and to focus on the "body snatcher"aspect diminishes what they do for the living.) Thousands of people lined up for the food distribution at Poh Teck Tung this morning. It was so crowded, city streets in the neighborhood were closed to traffic. 
People wait in the plaza in front of the shrine for their chance to go through the food distribution. It started at 06.00AM and went pretty much continuously until 11.00AM.  

Poh Teck Tung's most famous time came in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 when volunteers from the foundation traveled to southern Thailand and helped with cremations for the thousands of people killed in the disaster. 
A woman takes cooking oil from a volunteer during the food distribution. 

Almost all of the people who work with Poh Teck Tung are volunteers. It's both a social thing - volunteers make friends on the job - and a way to make merit, which is an important component of Buddhism. 
After getting their food, people relax in the street behind the Poh Teck Tung shrine. 

Although I photographed the Poh Teck Tung food distribution today, they are not the only organization that sponsors events like this. Most of the Chinese shrines and temples in Thailand have at least one food distribution event per year. And Ruamkatanyu Foundation, based next Wat Hua Lamphong, also operates an EMT medical service and helps people with funeral arrangements. 

There are more photos from the food distribution in my archive and available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Train in the Sky

Passengers in a nearly empty car on the "Purple Line," Bangkok's newest commuter rail line. 

A new light rail line opened in Bangkok this month. Bangkok's light rail trains are called "Sky Train" because they run, in a very sci-fi way, far above the city's streets. The new line, called the "Purple Line," runs from Bang Sue, in the northern suburbs, to Nonthaburi, in the far northern suburbs. A new commuter light rail line is a big deal in Bangkok. Traffic here is horrible and the mass transit infrastructure is one of the things that makes the city livable. 

The new line is having some problems though. It's only attracting about 20,000 riders per day (when 70,000 per day was predicted before the line opened). Even at rush hours, the trains are nearly empty. 

In contrast, the Sukhumvit Line, which runs from Samut Prakan (in the eastern suburbs) to downtown, is so full there is literally no room on the trains. 

We use the Ekkamai Station on the Sukhumvit Line, it's about halfway between the current terminus and downtown. The trains on the Sukhumvit Line are so full during the morning and evening rush hours that we sometimes have to wait for three or four trains to pass before we can squeeze on. One or two people will get off the train at our stop, but 20-30 will be waiting to get on. And it's like that at most of the stations on the line. Most people get off at stations in central Bangkok that intersect with other mass transit lines. 

The Silom Line, which runs from downtown to the southeast suburbs in Thonburi, is nearly as full. 
The "Purple Line" terminal in Tao Poon station. This picture was made from the Purple Line platform, the track coming into the station will be the connection for the existing MRT Blue Line, which is a subway for most of its length. 

The problem on the Purple Line is that the train doesn't yet connect to any other Bangkok mass transit line. The MRT Blue Line (Bangkok's subway) is supposed to connect with the Purple Line, but the Purple Line started running before the connection was complete. People who ride the Purple Line into Bangkok have to drive or take a taxi to their nearest station, ride the new line towards Bangkok then transfer to the subway. 
A Purple Line train comes into a station.

When the connection is complete the transfer should be pretty easy, although it might mean walking a couple of hundred meters. The connection from the MRT Subway to the Airport Rail Link, another commuter line, is about a 500 meter walk for example. But right now, with the two stations more than a kilometer apart, it means either taking the connector bus (which is free), some kind of taxi or walking. The transfers take time. The day I rode the train, the one kilometer transfer from the MRT to the Purple Line took about 20 minutes because of one way streets and traffic in that part of Bangkok. The MRT has promised to complete the connection by March 2017 but between now and then you have to transfer on the surface streets.
A nearly empty car on the Purple Line. This picture was made at about 9:10AM, at that time the Sukhumvit and Silom trains are still completely full. 

The situation for the MRT (the organization that runs the Purple Line, and the same company that operates the MRT Blue Line subway) is so bad that the Prime Minister Prayuth has invoked Article 44, a section of the Charter (constitution) which allows the PM to unilaterally issue orders which are not subject to legislative or legal appeal or oversight. He has ordered the MRT to increase ridership on the Purple Line. The MRT responded by reducing fares for passengers who use frequent rider cards by about half. Passengers who buy individual ride tickets still pay the full price though. In the meantime, the MRT is losing about 3 million Baht (around $85,000 US) per day on the Purple Line. 

There's a concept in mass transit planning called "The Last Mile," which basically means that no matter how good a mass transit system is, if the last (or first) mile is difficult, inconvenient, or takes too much time then people will choose to drive. It's a concept Singapore, for example, completely understands and has made their mass transit a joy to use.  

It's a concept Phoenix doesn't understand at all. Phoenix has a terrific light rail line but once you get past the urban centers of downtown Phoenix or Tempe you still need a car to get around. Bangkok is somewhere between the two, but closer to Phoenix than it is to Singapore. The mass transit is improving every year, but you frequently have to use a taxi or face a long (and uncomfortable) walk in the Bangkok heat once you get off the train. 
A security guard on a platform on the Purple Line. 

I hope that this is a short term problem for the MRT. I like using Bangkok's mass transit. The trains and subway are clean, air-conditioned, and fast. The Purple Line goes to a part of the Bangkok metropolitan area that is woefully underserved by mass transit and suffers from horrible traffic gridlock, so it should be a winner. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Feeding a Hungry Ghost

A woman lights incense at a small shrine in front of her Chinatown shop on Hungry Ghost day in Bangkok. 

Bangkok has a large Chinese community and Chinese beliefs are freely woven into Thai culture. Chinese holidays, like Lunar New Year and Hungry Ghost Month are important holidays here, even if they're not official state holidays. The Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month (usually August). 

On the day of the Ghost Festival (celebrated on Aug 17 in Bangkok this year) it's believed that the realms of heaven and hell open and ghosts walk the earth. It's not unlike the "Day of the Dead" holiday as it's practiced in Mexico. 
A man burns "Ghost Money" (or, in this case, "Ghost Gold") in Chinatown. Burning "ghost money" or other paper maché items like clothes, cars and consumer goods, is common. People burn things the spirits can use in the after life. 

In Chinese communities in Thailand, people start burning ghost money in the middle of the morning. The offerings are burnt in barrels in front of their homes and sometimes on the street. Shops close early, usually around mid-day, people set up shrines for their loved ones and lay out elaborate buffets. I've read that vegetarian food is the norm, but in Thailand, there is almost always a suckling pig or other pork, chicken and sometimes duck. Families partake in the feast but leave empty seats for the deceased.
A woman set up the ghost buffet in front of her home in Chinatown. 

While Mexico's Day of the Dead, is celebrated largely at night, the Ghost Festival is celebrated during the day because it's thought that the ghosts are out at night and you could fall victim to a malevolent spirit if you're not careful. 

I think Ghost Festival is interesting. I've photographed it three or four times now. The first time, I was wandering around in Chinatown, unaware of the holy day, and saw people burning the offerings, closing their shops and setting up the buffets. It was midweek and I didn't know what was going on, so I asked and a shopkeeper told me it was Hungry Ghost day. Internet research filled in the rest of the blanks. 
Setting up the buffet at a Chinese bakery in Bangkok's Chinatown. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The End is in Sight

An elderly resident of the Pom Mahakan community waits to be served eviction papers while city officials gather in front of the old fort. 

I think the end is in sight for the residents of the Pom Mahakan community. They've been fighting eviction efforts by Bangkok city officials for decades but early Monday city officials put up big eviction notices near all of the entrances to the community. 
Residents of the community wash a motorcycle. Well, one washed the bike, the other checked his smart phone. 

I've been photographing in Pom Mahakan for months now. The latest effort to save the community, a plan to turn it into a living history museum, was not well received by the city and residents have until September 3 to get out. A couple of families have already moved out and some people in the old fort said they would accept the city's offer and vacate their homes. But most of the residents said they plan to stay and would fight city efforts to relocate them. 
A woman grills Thai sausages (more like hot dogs) and pork balls in her home in Pom Mahakan. 

The residents of Pom Mahakan have used up all of their options. Everyone knew this day was coming but that doesn't make it any easier. 
Thai civil servants prepare to put up eviction notices. 

While residents of the fort wait for them. 

I will go down to the fort a couple of times each week before the September 3 deadline. The community in the fort is considered a slum, a word that conjures up images of crime and gangs. But I have never had a problem there, the people who live in Pom Mahakan have opened their lives and their homes to me. 
The fort was an early center of cockfighting in Bangkok. They don't stage cockfights there anymore but there are still a couple of families in the fort that breed fighting cocks. 
Girls walk through Pom Mahakan after buying soft drinks from a convenience shop in the fort. 

Pom Mahakan is another Bangkok institution that's being swept aside in the name of progress. Like the market in Bang Chak, the community at Wat Kanalaya, the food stalls at Soi 38, all swept aside in the name of progress.
City officials put up the eviction notice. 

A woman yells at city officials after the eviction notices were put up. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Queen's Birthday

Thai students in traditional outfits participate in a candlighting ceremony for Her Majesty. 

August 12 is the birthday of Queen Sirikit. It's also celebrated as Mother's Day in Thailand. There are merit making ceremonies, historic pageants and candle lighting ceremonies to honor the Queen throughout Thailand. 
A local government official makes an offering at a ceremony honoring the Queen in Benchasiri Park, near Emporium, one of Bangkok's most upscale shopping malls. 

Tens of thousands of people throughout Thailand participate in the ceremonies. The Royal Family is revered by the overwhelming majority of Thais and the birthdays of the Queen and King are very important holidays. 

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, is the longest reigning monarch in the world, and his wife, Queen Sirikit, is the longest serving consort in the world. 
A children's choir waits to perform at the ceremony.

Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth King in the Chakri Dynasty (Rama IX), which has reigned in Thailand since 1782. Rama I, the first king of the Chakri Dynasty, established Bangkok as the capital of Siam. Ramas IV and V (the fourth and fifth Kings of the Chakri Dynasty) maintained Siamese independence while British and French forces were colonizing the countries around Siam(Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1949). It's hard to imagine a modern Thailand without the presence of the Chakri Dynasty. 
People light candle to honor Her Majesty.

Women hold their candles aloft towards the end of the ceremony. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Aerobics in the Market

A woman in an aerobics class in the Flower Market in Bangkok. 

I went down to the Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok's old flower market, to see how it's changed since the city kicked out the street vendors that used to surround the market. I walked into the market and heard the unmistakable sounds of an aerobics class. I followed the music to its source and found an energetic instructor leading a class of about 10 people in a vigorous exercise session. 


The instructor (on stage in yellow tank top) leads an aerobics class in the flower market. 

These public exercise classes are common in Thailand. Lumpini Park, a large greenspace in the city's business district, hosts dozens of exercise classes early every morning (around 06.30AM). In provincial towns, the classes are usually held in the early evening, right around sunset. The class in the flower market starts about 07.00 and ends at 08.00. 
The only man in the class works out. 

A few months ago I accidentally ran into the exercise class - I got there just as it was ending and didn't have much time to photograph it. This time I got there just after the class started so I stayed and photographed. 
Women enthusiastically participate in the class. The yellow in the background is marigold garlands for sale. 

I started photographing and the people in the class couldn't have been happier to have me there. I stayed for most of the class. When the class ended I made a portrait of the instructor with my Fuji Instax instant camera and gave her the print. It was too dark in the market to photograph the class with the Instax, but I am getting prints made of the "real" photos. 

The first time I saw the exercise class, I didn't ask about the schedule. I just sort of assumed it was a daily thing. This time, I thought to ask the instructor about the class and learned it's on Thursday mornings from 07.00 - 08.00. I plan to go back to the market next week to photograph the class again and drop off the prints from earlier today. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Day for the Queen

A woman walks past a portrait of Queen Sirikit for sale on a street in Bangkok. 

August 12 is the birthday of Queen Sirikit, the wife and consort of Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's revered King. The Queen's Birthday is a national holiday in Thailand and is also celebrated as Mother's Day. There will be ceremonies throughout Thailand honoring her majesty.
A motorcycle taxi driver uses his call phone in front of a portrait of the King and Queen. 

There's a concentration of shops at the corner Dinso and Phra Sumen Roads in Bangkok, near the tourist ghetto of Khao San Road, that sells royal memorabilia - portraits of their Majesties, the royal flags, historic photos of past Kings in the Chakri Dynasty and patriotic merchandise, like Thai flags. 
A shopkeeper puts out a portrait of the Queen. 

It's a good place to go for photos related to the Thai Monarchy. The shops are almost always busy, the shopkeepers are happy to be photographed and it's easy to get to, within walking distance of many Bangkok attractions. 
A vendor who sells chilies and produce from a push cart sets up in front of portraits of the Queen. 

I went down to the neighborhood to make some pictures before Her Majesty's birthday. I will probably go back down there before the King's Birthday, which is December 5 and also celebrated as Father's Day in Thailand. 
A man walks by portraits of the Queen. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Charter Referendum

People stand in line to vote on the charter referendum (the new Thai constitution) at their polling place in the Ekkamai neighborhood in Bangkok. 

Thais went to the polls Sunday in their first national election since the army deposed an elected civilian government in 2014. The poll was a Yes/No vote on the new national charter. There was also a second question about an appointed Prime Minister in the referendum. The new charter, Thailand's 20th since 1932, passed with ease - 61.4% in favor, 37.9% opposed. Voter turnout, which was expected to be about 70% was only 55% though. 
A voter looks for her name on the voter rolls at her polling place. 

This is the first step in Thailand's walk back to democracy after six months of street protests in 2013/2014 and then a military coup in May, 2014. The military, and military controlled political interests have governed since.

I went to five different polling places today (all in central Bangkok). There were some lines early but by midday people walked in, voted and walked out with almost no waiting. There were lots of polling places (I walked to most of them) access was easy and, in Bangkok, transparent. The poll seemed to be transparent and there have been no complaints of vote buying or election fraud. 
A policeman drops his ballot into the ballot box. 

Voting lasted from 8AM - 4PM. At 4PM sharp, voting ended (at the polling place I was at) and the vote counted started. Votes were counted at the polling places and the results phoned in to the central elections office. 
An elections worker holds up a ballot during the count. 

This was the first step in Thailand's return to participatory democracy. The new charter has been criticized by some because it weakens the power of political parties, makes weak coalition governments more likely and gives more power to the military and bureaucrats. The Senate, the upper house of the Thai legislature, will be appointed rather than elected. 

There are more photos from election day in my archive and available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Yingluck in Court

Yingluck Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, waves to supporters upon her arrival at the Supreme Court of Thailand Friday morning. Her government was deposed by a military coup in 2014. 

Yingluck Shinawatra was back in court today. She's on trial for corruption and mismanagement of a rice price support scheme her administration started to help Thai rice farmers. The military government that overthrew her government has charged her with mismanaging the program. 

Although her popularity might have faded with many Thais, Yingluck is still very popular with her base and there were hundreds of people at the court waiting to catch a glimpse of the former PM. 
A supporter with a portrait of Yingluck stuck in her red hat. 

When she was elected in 2011, Yingluck won with a huge majority. She's the younger sister of the still very popular Thaksin Shinawatra, who was Prime Minister in the early 2000s. Thaksin's government was deposed by a coup in 2006 (you may see a pattern here) and he is in exile in Dubai because he's facing numerous charges of corruption (again, you may see a pattern here). 
Yingluck "wais" supporters at the court. (The wai is a traditional Thai greeting.) 

While Thaskin went into exile, Yingluck has chosen to remain in Thailand to fight the charges against her. I covered Yingluck's events quite a bit before the coup. She's not as polished a speaker as some Thai politicians but she's very telegenic and she connects with voters in a way that's hard for me to explain. She seems to be especially popular with older working class women. Most of her supporters at the court today were women 45 and older.
Yingluck walks through the crowd holding flowers women gave to her as she passed. 

Pandemonium broke out when Yingluck arrived. Some of the women waiting for her started weeping. Others chanted her name. Others sang what I'm guessing were songs made popular by her party, Pheu Thai, during the 2011 campaign. 

Thursday, the day before her court appearance, Yingluck appealed to her supporters to come to the court and they did not disappoint. 

There were hundreds of people at the court. I think it was the biggest Pheu Thai gathering I've seen since the coup.* The military dominated government has banned political gatherings, but they did not interfere with the crowd at the court this morning. And for their part, the crowd did not participate in any overt political posturing or taunt the military. 
Yingluck walks through the crowd and accepts flowers and gifts from well wishers.
Yingluck speaks to supporters (and reporters) in front of the court building. 

Yingluck didn't spend much time in the crowd this morning. She pulled up to the court building just before 8AM and made her way through the throng of people, accepting flowers (mostly red roses) and small gifts from well wishers and made a few comments about her innocence before disappearing into the court building. 
Some of Yingluck's supporters have breakfast on the lawn in front of the court building. 


* Although this was the largest turnout I've seen since the coup, by Thai standards this was a very small crowd. Both Red Shirts (Yingluck's supporters) and Yellow Shirts (the anti-Shinawatra movement) have mobilized hundreds of thousands of people for protests before the coup. So a couple of hundred people at court today is not, in the great scheme of things, a big crowd. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fighting to Remain

An artisan in the Pom Mahakan community varnishes a fancy bird cage in front of his home. Tourists buy the cages as mementos of Thailand. Thais buy them to house their songbirds. 

Pom Mahakan is a community in one of the old forts that used to protect Bangkok. The fort was built early in the 19th century on what was then the eastern edge of Bangkok. The city very quickly expanded and by the middle of the 19th century the fort was swallowed up by Bangkok and was militarily unnecessary. 

The military abandoned the fort and squatters moved in. 
The fort's ramparts still stand with a nonfunctioning cannon overlooking the street. 

Over time, a real community of a couple of hundred families took root in the fort. The community became a center for fireworks dealers (for safety reasons the fireworks factories moved out decades ago), cockfighting, songbirds, Likay (Thai traditional opera) and artisans like birdcage makers and musical instrument makers. 

The city took over the land in the fort in the mid 1960s and has been trying to evict the residents ever since.
A woman brings in her daughter's plush toy after she washed it and hung it out to dry. 

The city's eviction plans gathered steam this spring and I started going down to the old fort on a regular basis. I didn't photograph every time I went down there, but I always carried my cameras. Now people recognize me and they stop to greet me and try to chat with me. The first deadline for the evictions came in late April but people didn't move out and the city didn't move in, so a weird stasis set in. Since April, several deadlines have come and gone. 
An artisan crafts earthenware figurines in his home in Pom Mahakan....
...While his son watches TV. 

I enjoy my little sojourns down to Pom Mahakan. Slipping behind the walls of the old fort is like leaving Bangkok and getting into a rural Thai village. The people in the fort like showing visitors their community. If you take time to visit with people you'll have a chance to see a side of Bangkok life that most people don't see anymore. 
A child plays on a metal frame in the old fort. 

The fort's residents seem determined to stay. And the city is determined to move them out. The city wants to build a park on the land. The community's latest plan is turn the community into a "living history" museum. I don't know if the city will go along with this idea, but it seems to me be a nice compromise. There's a lot of history in the old fort and it would be a shame to lose it. 

The city's plan calls for moving the residents out to new housing far from the fort and central Bangkok. For the artisans, who sell their goods to tourists, this could kill their business. One man said to me, while he made his earthenware figurines, that he couldn't move because his customers wouldn't find him. 

For the people who live in the fort but work in Bangkok, it would be a financial blow. A teacher who lives in the fort (her family has lived behind the walls of the fort since the late 1800s) told me the school she teaches at was a just a short walk from the fort. If she moved she would have to take a bus or train everyday to get to work. 
A noodle soup vendor who lives in the fort pushes his cart out to the street to start his daily sales round. 

The latest rumored deadline is mid-August, probably around the 15th of the month. The fort's residents are working furiously to get the "living history" museum idea off the ground. There are supposed to be cultural events in the fort every weekend and they've scheduled meetings with national politicians to express their concerns. 
The community's unofficial historian (right) shows members of the National Legislative Assembly (parliment) around the fort. The yellow and blue flags are the flags of the King and Queen respectively, the striped flag is the Thai flag.

The NLA members seemed to be impressed with the residents' plans for a living history museum but they were noncommittal about stopping the evictions, because it is a city matter. 
A woman cooks on the sidewalk in front of her home. Kitchens are frequently outside the home in Thailand, even in the expensive homes of the elite. There are a couple of reasons for this; it helps keep homes a little cooler because the heat is generated outside and it keeps the smells (Thai cooking uses a lot of garlic and chilies) outside the home. 

I am not very optimistic that the community will be able to stay in the fort. I've been covering evictions in Bangkok for a little over a year now. So far every community I've photographed has been forced to move. What's different about this eviction is that the residents are dealing with a government entity (the other evictions were all carried out by private landowners) and it's possible that city officials will be more willing to compromise with residents than private landowners were. Possible but not likely. 
A resident of the fort listens to one of his songbirds. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.